Since I first became aware of the great tradition of British drama, I’ve noticed the periods known as the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century are constantly both linked and contrasted. There are a number of anthologies that collect plays from both periods. In the popular imagination, I suspect they are a single, amorphous blob of a time that can be roughly described as “after Shakespeare but before the Romantics.” However, critics and commentators often seem to consider the two periods as more sharply distinct from one another. The general consensus seems to be that the Restoration was a period of bold experimentation and transgressive wit. The Eighteenth Century, on the other hand, is often described rather negatively as marked by caution and sentimentality. Overall, critics seem to think of the Eighteenth Century as an unfortunate, conservative reaction to the glorious Restoration. Without meaning to, I recently read one play each from these periods. In some ways, they are extreme examples of the conventional wisdom I just described. However, I found my reactions to each piece going in some surprising directions.
Sodom, from the Restoration, is an example of that odd, somewhat contradictory genre, the closet drama. Closet dramas have a theatrical structure but are not meant to performed on stage. Instead, they are either recited in small groups or simply read. In the case of this play, it could hardly have hoped for any public performance in its own time. Sodom has the form of a raucous comedy but is filled with unending, and totally open, sexual humor. Anyone who has the idea that raunchiness was invented in the 1960s would do well to read this play. Some of the sex on display is, thankfully, no longer considered immoral, such as homosexuality. Other aspects are as obscene and offensive now as they were in the 1600s. The question of authorship intrigues many today. It is possible that Sodom was written by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, one of the period’s greatest poets and a notorious sexual libertine. Before reading Sodom, I took a look at a number of Rochester’s most important poems to see if I could detect any links. There are certainly moments when the verse in Sodom achieves a sophistication that is at least approaching that found in Rochester’s work. Other sections of the play, however, are merely doggerel. This certainly doesn’t rule out Rochester’s authorship. Poets in those less self-conscious, pre-Romantic periods often seemed more willing to write in different styles, varying their approaches to hit a variety of goals. Despite this, Sodom never quite rises to the level of quality I found in Rochester’s poetry. I cannot claim to be anything more than an amateur offering an opinion but, if I had to decide, I would say Rochester was either uninvolved or only a junior collaborator. Still, there is a firm kinship between the worlds of Rochester and Sodom. Both leave one feeling depressed and hopeless. I’m all for satire and transgression in art but this play, as clever and funny as it is at times, just left me feeling hollow. As they intended the play as an attack on King Charles II, the author or authors may be exempt from providing depth and feeling, but that doesn’t make for very pleasant reading.
Moving to the Eighteenth Century, Irene was the only play written by the great critic and general man of letters, Samuel Johnson. While it apparently did well enough on the stage when Johnson first produced it, the play has since come to be seen as an artistic disaster. To be sure, the poetry in the play is pretty bland. It has none of the eloquence and fluidity of Johnson’s magnificent prose and it isn’t even as good as his B/B+ poetry. Still, I liked it! After reading a little about Irene, I was fully expecting it to be a chore to get through. But, while its failings are obvious, the play is actually entertaining and even a little moving. Johnson’s plot is decently constructed, the characters exhibit some degrees of depth, and, contrary to what many have said, Johnson shows himself keenly aware of stage requirements. True, a sense of theatricality did not come naturally to him but he did a fair enough job of learning. While the verse is insipid, it is, at least, pleasing to the ear. When you get right down to it, Irene is an opera libretto. On its own, it is decent but rather lightweight. If Handel or Mozart had set it to music, it might have risen to greatness. While all of these are virtues, what I really loved about Irene was its celebration of virtue itself. Johnson avoids making the play a sermon but there is no mistaking his moralistic vision. We have a tendency to turn up our noses at this kind of thing. I used to myself and I still feel the instinct. As the years have gone by, however, I’ve started sneering less and less at artists who glorified decency and even sacrificed some of their aesthetic skill to the concept. Johnson’s compassion and humanity may not make Irene a great play but I think its ideas, and Johnson’s earnest attempt to dramatize them, are worthy of respect.
There is plenty to celebrate in the Restoration and plenty to criticize in the Eighteenth Century. Still, when cheering on wit and mocking moralizing, we might want to occasionally ask ourselves if we’d rather be witty or good. More importantly for many of us, to which of these concepts, wit or goodness, would we rather be subjects to?